In a league full of high-flying athletes, dazzling handle displays, flashy passes, and awe inspiring highlight real dunks, it is inevitable that Al Horford would be overlooked.
When people watch the Celtics, they see Kyrie Irving performing magic with the ball. They see Jaylen Brown slam home highlight reel worthy breakaway dunks. Fans might catch a Jayson Tatum finesse move at the rim finished off with a rim-rocking jam. They will also see plenty of big time Terry Rozier three pointers.
What they won’t necessarily see is everything Al Horford does to make these things happen. Fans won’t see Al set a hard screen on Kyrie’s man to give Irving space to make his move. They might miss him ripping down a rebound and heaving an outlet pass to a cutting Brown for a dunk. No one sees him set a pick and pop and run it to perfection, freeing up Tatum for his drive to the rim. They also won’t pay attention to the pass Horford makes out of a double team in the post to set up Rozier for the dagger three pointer.
Terry Rozier sinks a 3-pointer to tie the game with 8.4 seconds remaining! pic.twitter.com/DyjDkKHmkc
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 22, 2017
The Man Behind the Curtain
It is not always what you see on the stat sheet that makes Al Horford special. Make no mistake- Al Horford is the most important player on a Celtics team two wins away from the NBA Finals.
When Gordon Hayward went down early, Horford was there. When Kyrie went down and was announced out for the remainder of the year, Horford was there. In a season full of injuries, on a team with four returning players and a roster full of inexperienced talent, Horford has been the savvy veteran for his teammates to rely on. He has provided the Celtics with a stabilizing force through the turmoil, and kept the motor churning smoothly at the heart of the team’s success.
Boston may not have escaped Milwaukee in the first round if not for Horford’s abuse of the Buck’s smaller defenders. He forced Embiid to the bench in crunch time minutes in the 76ers series. He was too quick to guard outside of the key, and too deadly of a shooter to leave uncontested. His help-side defense on Ben Simmons snuffed out the brightly burning flame that once was the promise of Philadelphia’s season.
The Celtics wouldn’t be up 2-0 on the Cavaliers if Horford didn’t dominate Kevin Love on both ends of the court in Game 1, and follow up the performance by taking over down the stretch in Game 2.
Over the final 3:49, Al Horford scored or assisted on 8 of Boston's final 10 points
— Celtics Stats (@celtics_stats) May 16, 2018
Al is a Leader
One of the things that makes Al Horford unique is his ability to fill whatever roll Brad Stevens asks him to fill. Some nights he might be a role player. He’d willingly take a backseat to the Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum show by setting up screens, making passes, and even running point. Other times he may be asked to be the focal point of the offense. He’d run constant pick and rolls and be fed in the post against undersized and outmatched defenders.
In the playoffs this year Horford has been the team’s veteran leader and star.
How important has Al Horford been in setting the tone this postseason? Hustle stat ranks among all playoff participants:
Contested Shots – 1st
Contested 3pt Shots – 1st
Loose Balls Recovered – 2nd
Box Outs – 2nd
Contested 2pt Shots – 3rd
Screen Assists – 5th
— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) May 16, 2018
Al Horford is averaging 17.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 57% from the field in 14 playoff games. He has a true shooting percentage of 65.4%, which is up from 57.5% in the regular season. He has been notably more aggressive when attacking the rim, throwing down momentum-shifting dunks and flexing his muscles for the crowd.
The team has taken notice to Horford’s increased production and energy on the court, particularly at the end of games. After Game 2 against Cleveland, Jaylen Brown was asked to comment on Al Horford’s production down the stretch.
“That’s why Al gets paid the big bucks,” Jaylen Brown said. “We lean on Al in those tough moments. And he really went to work. Hitting some big free throws, made some big post-ups, hit the 3. Al, when it gets close to crunch time, we look towards Al to make some big plays.”
Take this play, for example.
— NBA (@NBA) May 16, 2018
This play came right after Horford was intentionally shoved to the ground by J.R. Smith. J.R. was called for a flagrant 1 on the play, sending Horford to the line. Horford went on to make Cleveland continue to pay in the last few minutes to put the game on ice.
The job is not yet finished for Horford and the Celtics. The team is preparing for their next major task: going into Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. The team will look to steal at least one of the two and come back to Boston to close the series out.
Whatever the future has in store for these Celtics as they continue their quest for banner 18, without a doubt Al Horford will be at the heart of it all.